Hours after Changaiz Baloch organised a protest last week against two of the most recent enforced disappearances in Balochistan, the student activist joined a list of more than 6,000 people who have gone missing in the restive Pakistani province since 2001.
"The missing persons are not criminals. If they have committed any crimes they should be produced in a court of law," Changaiz told The National at the protest in Quetta, the provincial capital, on Wednesday. "We just ask for political, economic and social rights of the Baloch."
Soon after the protest, he was seized at a tea stall along with two fellow activists, Zarif Rind and Aurangzaib Baloch, by men in plainclothes, according to a friend who was with them. They have not been seen since.
Chaingaz had called the protest to demand information on Jihand Baloch, another student activist who was taken from his home along with his father and 14-year-old brother by men in uniform and in plainclothes on the night of November 30. Jihand's sister Mahrang said her father was freed the next day and was not ill-treated, but had been held separately from her brothers, of whom there has been no word.
All four student activists are members of the Baloch Students Organisation, a politically active group formed in 1967 that lobbies on student issues, Baloch rights and human rights. Although some members have entered mainstream politics — a former leader, Dr Abdul Malik Baloch, served as the province's chief minister — security forces claim it has ties to separatist militants.
Balochistan is home to a long-running insurgency fuelled by perceived neglect by the federal government and unfair allocation of resources relative to its contribution to the national GDP. Some claim that the province, accounts for almost half of Pakistan's land mass and shares borders with Iran and Afghanistan, was forcefully annexed after British rule ended.
Reports of enforced disappearances surged after a crackdown on the insurgency launched in 2008. Troops were accused of spiriting away suspected militants, their family members and sympathisers, along with political activists, students and dissidents.
A senior provincial security official told The National the claims were exaggerated.
"This is just a move to undermine security forces and ongoing peace and stability in Balochistan,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “In Balochistan, insurgents, immigrants who fled to Europe, and even those who have been killed in military operations, are said to be missing persons.”
But the problem was acknowledged by Prime Minister Imran Khan during his campaign for the July general election. His party signed an agreement with an ally, the Balochistan National Party, promising to address the issue. Asked about missing people last week, Mr Khan said: “Balochistan is crippled with terrorism and there is involvement of India. So I had to talk to General Javed Qamar Bajwa, chief of army staff. Bajwa assured me his full support for resolving the issue. Even Bajwa said that they have released many of them.”
According to the Voice for the Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP), a group which pursues and monitors cases of enforced disappearances, people have continued to go missing under Mr Khan government. "Around 1,200 people have gone missing only in 2018 but 450 of them were picked up since Imran Khan became PM," the group's chairman, Nasrullah Baloch, told The National.
The numbers indicate a steep increase in the rate of disappearances compared with the 5,228 cases recorded by VBMP between 2001 and 2017. The group's tally includes only cases where the person fate is still not clear.
The increase roughly coincides with a surge in Baloch militancy targeted at China-funded projects in the province. In August, a bomb injured seven people in a bus carrying Chinese engineers to the Saindak copper and gold mines in Dalbandin district. Last month militants attacked the Chinese consulate in Karachi, killing two security guards and two civilians before they were shot dead. In October, two soldiers were killed in an attack on the convoy of the Frontier Corps chief in Balochistan, Maj Gen Saeed Ahmed.
The attacks were claimed by the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) and the Baloch Liberation Front (BLF). “We will not tolerate any Chinese military expansionist endeavours on Baloch soil," the BLA said in a statement claiming the consulate attack.
The BLA is the most lethal organisation in Balochistan, according to the latest report from Pakistani intelligence and the Corps Commanders which also mentions threats to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passing through the province.
China is pumping almost $56 billion into Pakistan’s faltering economy through CPEC projects. Beijing plans to connect its Xinjiang province to the Baloch city of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea, where it is building a deep sea port.
“Enforced disappearance reports increased when the state’s institutions started working on the CPEC projects,” Nasrullah Baloch said. “The security agencies picked up political workers and student activists who asked for Baloch rights and questioned the CPEC and the security agencies.”
Some of those who have disappeared have not been seen again, while others who were released reported being being tortured. A former member of the Baloch Students Organisation who went missing in August 2014 says he was beaten and administered electric shocks for 18 days before being released.
"I was shown pictures of Baloch insurgents and commanders and asked if I knew them or had been in contact with them or if I, myself, had been working with separatist groups," he told The National.
He said that before he was freed, a man who called himself a major "told me that they had abducted me due to some wrong information" and apologised.
"I think they should have killed me because they snatched my peace, dignity and respect in those three weeks,” he said.
Baloch politicians have taken different stances on the issue.
Sardar Akthar Mengal, leader of the Balochistan National Party that allied with Prime Minister Khan in the election, raised the matter in parliament in August and submitted the list of the 5,228 missing people compiled by VBMP.
But Anwar Ul Haq Kakar, a senator from the Balochistan Awami Party that runs the provincial government, questions claims by families that their members have gone missing. "The issue of enforced disappearance is a very exaggerated issue," he told The National.
The VBMP said information given by the government could also be misleading.
“We were told by the government that Abdul Raziq, who was one of the attackers on the Chinese consulate in Karachi, was also included in the list of missing persons,” said Nasrullah Baloch. “I made it clear to the government that Abdul Raziq who carried out the attack was son of Deen Muhammad and resident of Kharan district. But the Abdul Raziq who is still missing is son of Khaliq and resident of Mastung district.”
And now even those simply calling for clarification from the government are being disappeared.
“The voices for missing persons are going missing,” said Mehr Bano, Changaiz Baloch's sister. “There can be no worse cruelty than this.”